Northlight center stage of setback meeting

Northlight supporters lobbied the Ashland Planning Commission to do away with a 20-foot setback requirement that once plagued the proposal for Lithia Way.

Ashland's planning department sent out about 500 invitations to Tuesday's meeting to discuss the merits of the setback requirement. But council chambers was mostly devoid of members of the public, except for Northlight proponents and opponents.

Northlight was originally designed as a 70,000-square-foot, mixed-use development proposed for the Copeland Lumber site on Lithia Way. The planning commission denied the project in 2006. Developers of the project were told that a 20-foot setback rule in Ashland's land-use ordinance would apply to their project, even though it hadn't been applied to others on Lithia Way, such as the new firehouse.

Proponents of the project think the setback requirement is out of touch with modern trends in urban design.

"Since the advent of the automobile, zoning codes have tended to mix residential and commercial setbacks with the understanding that if it's good for one why wouldn't it be good for the other," said Mark Knox, a spokesman for the second incarnation of Northlight. "However, it's clear to me and most everyone here tonight that this hasn't worked. It has created confusing and lifeless streetscapes. It just doesn't work."

George Kramer, a spokesman for the original Northlight project, explained that front-yard setbacks in commercial or downtown areas are a "chestnut" from an era when cities were designed to accommodate the automobile.

"If you travel to a successful downtown, they don't push back the buildings," he said. "When you do, you are ceding the street to the automobile."

Northlight opponents argued that the setback still has its merits.

"I don't think anyone in town has made the argument that we need more auto traffic or asphalt," said Colin Swales, a former planning commissioner who spoke out against Northlight. "There are opportunities for tree plantings, bus pullouts, and to provide light and air to make it more pedestrian-friendly."

Ashland City Councilors Eric Navickas and Cate Hartzell said the setback is being reviewed for the benefit of the Northlight developers.

"There is a certain team of developers who are pushing this through," Navickas said. "I don't know if that is why we should be (amending) land-use ordinances."

Councilor Kate Jackson disagreed with her colleagues.

"I take a different view than Cate Hartzell and Eric Navickas," she said. "I think it is important to decide where it should apply and where it should not. We're not bowing to anyone in particular."

City planning staff agreed with the Northlight crowd, saying setbacks hurt the pedestrian experience and put the emphasis on the automobile.

"Compare or contrast walking downtown and on Ashland Street," said senior Planner Maria Harris. "I think the setbacks play into that."

Brent Thompson, who heads the advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Jackson County, said the setback might be dated.

"It could be warranted to reduce the setback from 20 feet to 10 feet," he said. "Sometimes you do have to plan incrementally." Some on the planning commission wondered why they were dealing with one section of the code, when the planning department is working on a rewrite of the entire land-use ordinance.

"I'm having a little trouble figuring out what the goal of this study session is," Commissioner Melanie Mindlin said, noting that amending the 20-foot setback rule wasn't a goal of either the planning commission or the city council.

Commissioner John Fields, who doesn't think the setback should apply on Lithia Way, disagreed.

"I was under the impression that our goal is to change the ordinance. I'm not here to not resolve it," Fields said.

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